On Saturday, November 1, Washington Filmworks was pleased to partner up with Tasveer’s 9th Seattle South Asian Film Festival (SSAFF) to co-present a panel rich with fascinating discussion and insight. We find tremendous value in film festivals like SSAFF because they give voice to communities passionate about cultural and artistic discourse and diversity. SSAFF invites audiences to discover, experience, and enjoy South Asian cinema through screenings, panels, and workshops. The festival is underway and runs until Sunday with a multitude of exciting events and screenings, all of which you can discover on their website.
Saturday’s panel, “Filmmaking for Global Audiences: Stories that Travel,” explored how the Indian and South Asian culture and diaspora have produced stories with mass global appeal – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire, The Lunchbox, and Seattle Filmmaker John Jeffcoat’s Outsourced are prime examples. What makes these stories worthy and substantial enough to cross borders and engage audiences throughout the world? A panel of South Asian filmmakers and talent – including Subrana Thapa (Soongava), Kanu Behl (Titli), and Mayank Tewari – joined Jeffcoat and moderator Warren Etheredge (Host of The High Bar) to discuss complexities, challenges, and gratification of the South Asian film industry and its globally appealing narratives.
Each filmmaker agreed and expressed that stories that travel are good and effective because they are honest – the more truthful and specific they are, the more universal they become. Behl remarked that he’s not conscious of a global audience as he’s writing his films; instead, his focus solely lies on the story and characters he’s developing. He channels his creative energy into the core and essence of his film – what he is trying to honestly express with his work – and that, he believes, is what connects with audiences. Jeffcoat, although a South Asian outsider looking in, agrees. For Outsourced, he was not concerned with western audiences’ perspective of South Asia as much as portraying the Indian culture that was true to his own travel experiences. He hoped his film enlightened western audiences about the culture and encouraged them to go and discover it for themselves.
Thapa echoed Behl and Jeffcoat’s beliefs, yet also emphasized that these stories are honest because they are personal – the more specific the emotions are onscreen, the more universal the narrative becomes. Audiences connect with films, no matter where they come from, because of relatable insight into humanity and behavior.
However, South Asian stories don’t always find success elsewhere because of this integrity. Tewari then brought up a recent Indian film – The Lunchbox, a cross-over art house success in the US this past spring – that connected with audiences but, in his opinion, is regressive in its stereotypical portrayal of Indian women (who are relegated to the role of cooking in the film). Tewari argues that western audiences liked the film because it presented a culturally diverse environment, even though the characters were defined by dated gender roles. Thus, in Tewari’s opinion, The Lunchbox is a frustrating example of a story that traveled because it connected with audiences not due to a truthful story, but because of its surfaced appeal. Tewari challenged audiences instead to seek out films that are more introspective, personal, and intellectually stimulating.
This conversation revealed a startling connection between the South Asian film industry and the American independent film community – often, the business of film is based on box office success, compromising the integrity of honest and independent storytelling. South Asian films are then, in turn, commercialized to widen its appeal but distorts audiences’ perspective of an authentic world with archetypes, an unfortunate circumstance that similarly presents itself in our own industry at times. The panel concluded with each participant noting the parallels between South Asian and western filmmaking, including compromises that are made but also with the optimism that thoughtful artistic voices break barriers and find a global audience.
About SSAFF: The Seattle South Asian Film Festival (SSAFF) is a 10-day film festival produced by Tasveer for people to discover, experience, and enjoy through a range of South Asian films, workshops, and forums. SSAFF creates a lively, stimulating, and focused environment for conversation, education, and exploration of issues that face South Asia and its Diaspora. SSAFF 2014 is organized in collaboration with UWBothell and Cascadia Community College and The Roxy Cinema in Renton.